Interview: Will Sheldon

In a number of Will Sheldon’s drawings, one finds heart-shaped strands of barbed wire gone limp, unfurling like ribbon while keeping their deadly edge. Hybrid states like these are common in Sheldon’s work: all fantastical content and visual layering, the effect feels at once earnest and campy, celebratory and sinister, vibrant but venomous. Known for his intricate, hallucinatory tattoo designs, the past few years have seen Sheldon increasingly focused on his art practice—most recently in “Looking for Blueberries in a House Painted Brown,” a solo exhibition of mixed-media canvases at White Columns in New York. Our conversation found Sheldon at his Brooklyn apartment, preparing items for an upcoming project with NYC fashion line Lou Dallas before heading out to do a 12-10 shift at Fun City.

I thought we could start by talking about the White Columns show. First off, where did the title come from?

It’s from this Cookie Mueller book called Walking Through Clear Water In A Pool Painted Black, which is a collection of her diaries. I was really into it when I read it, and for some reason, that line just popped into my head when I was trying to name the show. With the work I was making at the time, I was trying to add a lot of natural elements to the pieces, so the idea of blueberries seemed to fit.

Your materials lists are always fun to read. You’re really adventurous in your choices, combining acrylic and ink with elements like dental floss, glitter and beads.

I just really enjoy working with a range of materials. Part of it’s not wanting to be so precious about what I make, but I also like the idea of working with what’s in front of you. I just use what I can afford. I actually get a lot of my materials from dollar stores in New York. I really love spending time in those places, finding new materials to work with.

It makes for some really nice textural variance, a lot of surprises in each canvas—but what’s interesting to me is that the drawings somehow read the same way. It’s almost a collage aesthetic, where they’re always composites of disparate elements, always reward a closer look.

I guess my instinct is to stitch things together, whether it’s literally or just in terms of compositions. In a way, I think it comes from when I was younger: sitting on the couch, zoning out and sewing up a pair of pants or whatever. I still sort of work that way.

Do you have a background in garment-making?

No, not at all. Just being into punk as a kid, I would make my own clothes. The punk aesthetic is actually really expensive, so if I wanted bondage pants, I’d end up having to sew them together myself. I definitely found it meditative as a younger person to sit, listen to records and stud my jackets, and I think that’s carried over to my work now—not only with the technique, but even with the characters’ outfits, using things like beads or bells to create a certain look. It ends up being more of a craft thing, in a way—which is really interesting to me, but some people aren’t comfortable talking about their work in those terms.

Right—it’s still a pejorative label for a lot of artists.

It’s kind of off-limits if you want to be taken seriously in the art world. But the thing is, almost everything I do is the “wrong” thing to do. Between the tattooing, illustration, and craft, I feel like I’m doing a pretty good job of making it hard to be taken seriously. [laughs]

Is that something you’re actively inviting?

No, I’m not going out of my way, but it is something I’m aware of. Obviously, I’d rather be taken seriously than not. And it’s not like what I’m doing is so radical or rebellious, either. It’s not reactionary work. I just do what I want to do, which a lot of the time doesn’t come out in a “formal,” “proper” way.

The pieces in the White Columns show were the largest I’ve seen of yours to date, which I thought was a welcome development. It’s interesting how differently the work reads at that scale.

Yeah, these are definitely the biggest artworks I’ve made. I’ve just recently started using an airbrush, which lets me to be a little bit looser with the drawing style and makes working on larger pieces easier. When I’m painting, I don’t want to make grand gestures. I wouldn’t be comfortable with big brush strokes or anything like that. I’d rather use the paintbrush for drawing. So I worked in a different way with these new pieces, made some bigger decisions.

Your artworks and tattoo designs share a recurring set of characters and motifs—the dog, the flowers, the faeries. At this point, the aesthetic seems fully realized, but I’m curious as to how it evolved. Your earlier tattoo work, for example, favored a pretty different style; then, at a certain point, you abruptly changed things up and introduced this new mode of work.

When I started tattooing, I really wanted to learn the craft and become technically sound, so I was doing a lot of things that I felt were “right.” I’d put my own spin on things when I could, but it wasn’t really about being expressive or anything—it was more about proving myself on a technical level, which served me and didn’t serve me: people responded to the technique, but it really wasn’t interesting to me, and I sort of burned myself out. I got to the point where I’d taken it as far as I could, and I just stopped. I wanted to get away from tattooing and focus on drawing new stuff. Actually, I remember the day it happened: Someone asked me to draw a cartoon for a TV show they wanted to make. I drew a bunch of rats; I showed it to them, and they were like, “Uh, no.” [laughs] They never talked to me about it again, but I took that drawing and used it as flash, and things sort of went from there. At first, everybody at the shop was like, “What are you doing?” But I kept going, and people eventually started to respond to it.

Do you think of the characters as individuals, with names, narratives, etc.?

No, not at all. People say things like, “You should make a comic book,” “You should animate them and make a TV show.” But that doesn’t really interest me. I think of them more as little apotropaic entities that you can carry with you. They don’t have voices or set personalities—they’re free to change with each new drawing, or each new person.

It's nice when work can accommodate a range of readings. For instance, I remember the Artforum Critic’s Pick for the Cleopatra’s show, which referred to the characters as being “angst-ridden”—which they may or may not have been, but that stuck out to me, if only because I hadn’t seen them that way at all.

People want to make sense of things. They can’t help but interpret what they see. The thing is—angsty? Sure, but I mean, everybody’s angsty. Some people look at my drawings and say it looks like a high school girl did it—as if that’s what I’m going for. That’s fine, but that’s really not what I’m doing. I’m definitely not trying to make angsty high school drawings or something. I just want to leave it open, so that different people can see something sweet in them, or something evil, or angsty, or whatever. I just want there to be some emotion to them, some kind of life. It can be funny, though: like earlier this week, I drew this sort of self-portrait that I put into my book, and last night a kid came in and wanted it as a tattoo. He was like, “It’s me!” I didn’t have the heart to say, “No, it’s not.” [laughs]

So are most of your clients coming in specifically for your designs?

Not necessarily. I still do walk-ins, tourists that wander into the shop and want to get a heartbeat that turns into the city skyline or whatever. That’s fine with me. At the end of the day, I see tattooing almost like doing graphic design or something. Even if I’m working with my own drawings, I’m still doing it to serve someone else’s needs. It’s a way of making rent. But having said that, it’s definitely great when people come in looking to get the crazier stuff done.

I’ve read that in creating designs, you often look to art history as reference, trying to find older elements to revive.

Oh, yeah. I definitely think of my work as being recycled from the things I'm into.

What have you been into lately?

I’ve been looking at H.R. Giger a lot, just in terms of his drawing. John Wesley is another one I always come back to. When I saw his paintings, I knew I had to make tattoos that looked like that. Basically, anything can be tattooed if it’s line-oriented, so whenever I come across artwork that’s line-heavy, I get excited. But I also like looking at people like Paul Thek or Isa Genzken, artists whose work is completely outside the realm of drawing, and seeing if I can find something to take away from that as well.

Are your designs open-edition or one-off?

They’re open. I basically treat it like it’s any old flash. I have a line book at the shop; when people come in, I let them look through it, and they can either pick something from there, or I offer to draw up something new on the spot. I’ve gotten pretty quick at doing the characters and elements I’ve been using, so if people want some sort of mish-mash, I can usually do it for them. That’s actually how the best ideas happen: when it’s more about working with the other person, rather than it just being about me. These other people see something in my work and bring something new to it. It’s just a different energy.

That seems to be a central idea in your art practice as well: a lot of your pieces and exhibitions have been collaborative. My own introduction to your work was through the projects you did with Women’s History Museum—the show at Cleopatra’s and the zine for Wet Satin Press. How did those come about?

Mattie and Amanda are good friends of mine—I just think they’re amazing, really inspiring people. The collaboration happened really naturally: they were putting together this zine to coincide with one of their shows, and they just asked me to do some drawings. Then, when I was trying to figure out what to do at Cleopatra’s, I felt weirded out by the idea of this big solo show, so I thought, why not get my friends involved? It’s great, because we all have really similar ideas. It’s kind of crazy, actually. Like, I’ll text them and say, “Hey, I was thinking about making a butterfly pillow for this show—do you want to help?” And they’ll reply, “We’re actually doing that right now at the studio.” So for Cleopatra’s, we got together and made this pillow, and it ended up being the best part of the show. I just really like a good collaborative effort. It always ends up more interesting if you can take yourself out of the work a little bit.

You’ve also worked closely with Raffaella Hanley from Lou Dallas—lending designs for her SS18 collection, collaborating on a zine. It’s interesting to me that these people with garment-focused practices so identify with what you do, and that your work seems to fit so well within these progressive fashion aesthetics.

Me too! It’s not something I’ve been pushing, necessarily—it’s been more about working with friends who have similar sensibilities. I really love and support Raffy’s work, and there’s a lot of overlap in our styles, so working together is really exciting. Actually, a lot of the clothes I put on my characters are based on work that people like her and Mattie and Amanda are doing right now. They just really inspire me, so it’s great that they’re interested in what I do, too.

A number of people, including collaborators like Women’s History and Reba Maybury, have talked about being attracted to your work for its fluidity: its apparent gender neutrality and indeterminate sexuality. On that level, you can see why it might appeal to forward-thinking designers.

Right. I mean, that’s not really something I think about—it’s just something that happens in the work. I can see where they’re coming from: I definitely try to put as much sexuality into the work as possible, but it’s more of an abstract sexuality, nothing set or straightforward. I don’t see what I do as being overtly political—I’m not trying to be an out-loud advocate for one thing or another—but I am really glad that people see that kind of openness in what I do.

Random last question: Aside from your work, what comes to mind as the most enjoyable thing you’ve done recently?

Probably playing music. I’m in this new band with a few other artists: Jeff Joyal, Valerie Keane and Brad Kronz. We’ve never played together before, so it’s still really early in the developmental stages, but it’s already been a totally different experience than I’ve had with music before.

What do you play?

Drums. Growing up, I always wanted to be a musician rather than an artist. That’s actually where tattooing came in for me: I was in a band, working at a restaurant and going on tour. That got really tiring after a while, so I decided to learn how to tattoo, so I could travel, work odd hours and have a little more freedom. This new thing is a little more relaxed than what I was doing before; we’re not necessarily looking to tour or anything, just make music together, maybe do a few shows. But playing music with other people is a really vital part of my process for tattooing and artmaking—and everything else, really. It’s all connected.

Interview originally published in Sex Magazine, December 2017